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Instalación de cuatro bordados a mano sobre tela de algodón.

Monumental Fragility. The work of Monica Bengoa


Monumental Fragility, The work of Monica Bengoa by Yu Yeon Kim, in Mónica Bengoa: Cuaderno en Mano (Santiago: self-published, 2004)


My first encounter with the work of Monica Bengoa was in 2002 while she was an artist-in-residence at Art Omi (Ghent, New York) and I was the critic-in-residence. At first glance, on entering her studio, it appeared empty –until it became apparent that the sockets, light switches so on, had been replaced by embroideries and drawings. When asked why she had simulated these objects she explained that her normal “studio” was her home environment and that she felt compelled to simulate the home setting as a way of inhabiting the space at Art Omi.

For Bengoa, her work and everyday domestic life experience are inseparable. She has transformed the routines of living into art by systematically registering them through photography and drawing. This process becomes a form of resistance –by making the mundane details of everyday tasks significant, they become acutely poetic. The contradiction in her work is that the repetitive documentation of repetitive domestic acts –children sleeping, eating, washing, etc., actually accentuates the fragility of existence. To quote: ‘The small differences between one photo and another, between one night and another, mark a territory in time, where my maternal and obsessive vigilance, bore witness to barely perceptible nuances: the change of a bed sheet, a pajama, a haircut.  Later came other familiar situations, those that shape the home…”

A characteristic of Monica Bengoa’s work is to form a whole from delicate fragments. For example, she constructed a mural image of a wash basin in the family bathroom with 9,160 dyed flowers. Muralist images of children sleeping or performing personal ablutions are composed of hundreds of small photographs of snapshot quality –each one, she says “with the capacity of retaining in its volatility the presence of those daily situations”. It is this act of displacement of the moments of existence to another form that marks the point of its disappearance – of its fading in time, or of being ceremoniously covered as a testimony to life that is continuously passing.

This concept of art as process started early in Bengoa’s artistic formation as documentary photography with herself as a subject as well as large mural drawings that were based on climate card graphics taken from an old atlas. She was interested in how such things as territories, political and ethnic boundaries could be replaced by the chromatic divisions  of a colour chart. The colour sense derived from these charts later translated into her choice of the muted greens and browns contained in the small snapshot photographs printed cheaply on her home printer, that are composite of her large scale works. “Sobrevigilancia/Over Vigilance” (4.45 x 11.78 meters) 2001, the mural of a wash basin made of dried flowers, marked an important transition in her work where she began to transpose photographs on to materials that comprised her domicile, such as flowers, napkins, embroidery and so on. This was accompanied by a translation of the photographic image into drawing and painting.

Monica Bengoa admits to a wide influence –from Donald Judd to Cindy Sherman Gerhard Richter, Anne Hamilton and others. In particular, Sherman’s “Untitled Film Series” and Anette Messager’s minute photographic documentation of her body. She is also interested in the Richter’s use of photographic reference and translation into painting. The use of repetitive process in Hamilton’s work has also been important to her development in understanding the powerful resonance of small actions. The writings of Agota Kristof have also shaped to an extent her idea of personal resistance – of transcending mundanity and sufferings of everyday life so that the spirit may endure and be strengthened by experience.

The contradiction of scale is an essential element for Bengoa’s work. The individual components have an ephemerality that conveys a poignant fragility – yet recompiled they form a monumental image that can dominate a space. They can be read intimately at close range or from a distance. In a sense, the fragments of her work contain the whole, a kind of Trojan horse that surreptitiously insinuates a much larger package. There is not just the scale of dimension but also of time. A cascade of small photographs of her children mounted in rows on a wall read like film stills –a fragmented continuity that forms a calendar of small moments of family life– seemingly insignificant in part but of great consequence as a whole.

10:04, Dominigo/10:04, Sunday” is two photographic works each printed on 400 pieces (10 x 30 cm each) of watercolor paper. The two works (each with an overall measurement of 2 meters by 3 meters) which form an image of herself asleep in her bedroom, are installed adjacently. The viewer is at first absorbed by the detail and texture of the water colour fragments –in their monochromatic fields– and then stepping further back there is a sense of being in that room with the quiet presence of the sleeping woman. This portrait of a rest, fragmented into a series of sequences embodies the past, present and future as a repetitive return like the rhythm of a sleeper’s breath.

Monica Bengoa’s work is not merely a process of documentation, but of securing her domicile – of making it resistant through its metamorphosis to the monumental. This is not a straightforward fortification – it is both fragile and secure – simultaneously expressing vulnerability and endurance. It creates a tangible portrait of life while acknowledging its transience – the presence of the recorded moment intimating its inevitable disappearance.

Yu Yeon Kim

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